That Christians and the Christian worldview represent a minority opinion in our country today is hardly a controversial position. A far more debatable question is the proper relationship between Christians and their culture. How should we, as disciples of Jesus Christ, interact with a culture that is opposed to so much of what biblical Christians believe? While there are numerous possibilities being bandied about for our consideration, we can boil them down to variations on three options:
Option 1: Isolate
This approach basically amounts to a modern version of monasticism where Christians withdraw from all meaningful interaction with the culture at large, gathering instead into small, protected groups which seek to become self-sufficient societies. Following this model, we are encouraged to develop a fortress mentality, where we lock ourselves and our families behind the protective walls of the church. Folks who subscribe to this view see the surrounding culture as an infectious disease with the power to contaminate Christians. Therefore, we need to quarantine ourselves and our children to prevent lasting harm. Certainly, we can all relate to such concerns.
In a recent article in The American Conservative, journalist and cultural commentator Rod Dreher described (and endorsed) this particular option as a strategic withdrawal from society:
…we need to realize the radical nature of the present moment, which requires a radical response—a kind of deliberate, strategic retreat so that we can tend our own gardens, so to speak, and cultivate the deep roots that our kids and their kids, and their kids’ kids will need to hold on to the faith through the dark times ahead.
The problem with this view is that isolation keeps the church from being salt and light as commissioned by Jesus. By breaking off into isolated communities of believers whose primary claim of commonality is a distrust of popular culture rather than the reconciling power of the gospel, we abdicate our calling to be Kingdom ambassadors to a world in desperate need of the hope only Jesus Christ can give.
Option 2: Accommodate
The general thought process goes something like this: Christians have become increasingly irrelevant by affirming moral positions dictated in a book that was strongly influenced by ancient culture and which no longer applies in this enlightened age. If the church is to gain any influence, she must once again become relevant by getting onboard with the changing morality of the day. This view is typically characterized by the rejection of long-held biblical positions on sexuality including extra-marital sex, homosexuality, gender roles, marriage, and divorce.
This view is obviously the hardest one for us to present biblical support. Nowhere does Scripture tell us to become like the world. In Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer, he prayed for his disciples (and for us) when he said:
I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. (John 17:15-16)
And as Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, put it so well recently: The church has no right to follow the secular siren call toward moral revisionism and politically correct positions on the issues of the day.
If we are intent on being people of the Book, then the cultural fads of this age cannot be the standard for morality. What is considered wrong today will be cherished and celebrated tomorrow. Christians stand on the eternal, unchanging, and infallible truth of the Word of God, not on the whims of popular opinion.
Option 3: Engage
Rather than a retreat into isolationism or the adoption of anti-biblical positions endorsed by a post-Christian culture, what the church need to be about is speaking to the big social and political issues of our day with the only truth that matters, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus prayed in John 17, we are not of the world and shouldn’t pretend to be. Christianity was always designed to be strange in the eyes of a secular, God-denying world. It is that strangeness that actually gives the Christian faith the power to influence.
In the mid-second century, a Christian disciple identified as Mathetes wrote a letter to an unbeliever named Diognetus during a time of severe persecution in which he attempted to explain the Christian faith. His description of the Christian lifestyle of that time is especially relevant to our current discussion:
They live in their own countries, but only as aliens; they participate in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign country is their fatherland, and every fatherland is foreign. They live on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven. They love everyone, and by everyone they are persecuted. They are poor, yet they make many rich; they are in need of everything, yet they abound in everything. They are dishonored, yet they are glorified in their dishonor; they are slandered, yet they are vindicated. They are cursed, yet they bless; they are insulted, yet they offer respect. When they do good, they are punished as evildoers; when they are punished, they rejoice as though brought to life.
If Christians still lived this way and were still characterized by this kind of mentality, we might find the Church regaining her prophetic voice, having something real and substantial to say to a culture that insists on sliding into a moral abyss. When our lifestyles match our message, perhaps the cultural relevance we have been seeking will be rediscovered, only to realize that as long as we remain faithful to God and His Word, we will always be relevant.
Let me conclude with some words of encouragement from Russell Moore, the author of Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel:
The signs of the times tell us we are in for days our parents and grandparents never knew. But that’s no call for panic or surrender or outrage. Jesus is alive. Let’s act like it. Let’s follow him, onward to the future.